National Consumers League

How we can improve the marketing of food to children


By Teresa Green, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow With the nation facing an obesity epidemic, the marketing of food to children has understandably become a controversial issue.  The formation of an Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children, made up of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is part of the Obama administration’s attempt to find a solution to this pressing issue. The Working Group was formed in 2009 and charged with conducting a study and developing “recommendations for standards for the marketing of food” to children.  The Working Group initially recommended that foods marketed to children meet certain nutritional thresholds and limit the inclusion of unhealthy ingredients such as saturated fat, sugar and salt. Facing immense pressure from the industry, representatives of the Working Group announced at a hearing before Congress in October that they would be substantially altering their recommendations.  For example, marketing recommendations will now only target children up to 12 and will not include equity characters and sponsorship of team sports. There are two important components of this discussion that bear mentioning.  The first is that, contrary to the assertion of some members of the industry, the Working Group’s report does not enact regulations.  Because the report is not part of the rulemaking process, it does not bear the force of law and thus companies are under no compulsion to follow its advice.  Even beyond that, the report does not recommend ending advertisement to children, but rather advocates that the products which are advertised to kids meet certain standards of health. The second point is this; there is no doubt that America is facing an obesity epidemic.  The CDC estimates that 20% of children ages 6 to 11 in this country are obese.  According to a study done by the Institute of Medicine, advertising influences children to prefer high calorie foods that have little nutritional content.  This means that changing the way that food is marketed to children has the potential to be a real and meaningful part of the solution to the obesity problem facing our nation. The Working Group has not released its new guidelines and only time will tell how much they will be altered from the original. Groups like NCL will continue to advocate for limits on marketing which protect the most vulnerable from exposure to advertising that can have long-term negative impacts on their health.